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I have always thought that living alone would be frightening. What if I broke my neck and no one was there to find me? What if something exciting happened and there was no one there to listen to my story?
If anything is evident in “Olive Kitteridge” it is that these are concerns that haunt most everyone. Loneliness is horrifying, and misery is unavoidable. But thanks to Elizabeth Strout’s indomitable characters and the empathetic way she treats them, the stories are also an enjoyable read.
“Olive Kitteridge” is a collection of 13 short stories about the residents of a small town in Maine. The stories focus on characters of different ages and occupations, all with some connection to Kitteridge, who plays a prominent role in some of the stories and a small one in others.
While Strout’s characters find themselves in a variety of predicaments related to everything from aging to intimacy to parenthood, they are all connected by the common thread of challenge and endurance. Strout is able to take the loneliness and disillusionment felt by a young woman abandoned on the day of her wedding and that of an elderly woman realizing her long-time husband’s infidelity, and show how the feelings of these different characters are connected. They are both rooted in hurt and betrayal. Yet both characters decide to forgive and move on in a way that seems not naïve but mature, “because what did they have now except for each other, and what could you do if it was not even quite that?”
When Strout’s stories focus on Olive that, the collection begins to feel like a novel. We follow her through a journey of realization that is interjected with characters and stories somewhat related to her own. Olive is often described as unlikable: she is a school teacher who scares her students and a mother who alienates her son. But she is also a character who, despite her faults, has an obvious inner goodness that makes her bearable. She is able to empathize with a wide range of people due to a “sense of just how desperately hard every person in the world was working to get what they needed.”
Though it can sometimes feel like reading the same story over and over again as different characters continue to realize they have been betrayed, that repetitiveness simply drives home the point: all of our stories are essentially the same when they are broken down to their emotional experiences. The first two stories of the collection, for example, feature a man who finds reason to live in worrying about a young employee (“he doesn’t want people to be alone”) and a man who finds his reason to live when he rescues a woman from drowning (“he thought he would like this moment to be forever”). In each, emotional ties bind people together and keep them going.
The characters themselves come across as so unique and weird and crazy that they at first they seem almost impossible to connect with, but it begins to make sense as the collection moves on. One character spends her father’s funeral imagining the ways in which she could physically pleasure the minister; it seems that the girl is a psycho. But when placed in her life’s context—that she was a girl who spends her life missing a former flame who once told her, “Don’t watch what you think, watch what you do”—one can understand the crude thoughts as her way of willing him back to her.
That craziness also creates some of the most enjoyable parts of the book, as when Olive decides to teach a lesson to her daughter-in-law—whom she describes as “a woman who knows everything”—by making her believe she is insane. Olive decides to steal articles of clothing from her daughter-in-law knowing that “there will be moments now when Susan will doubt herself, calling out Christopher, are you sure you haven’t seen my shoe?” While Olive’s actions may be shocking, they make the reader admire her for creating a unique way to find joy and amusement from her shear disappointment of losing her son to a woman she neither likes nor trusts.
After completing “Olive Kitteridge,” I decided that my fears of living alone are not foolish, but universal. When Olive finds a man recently passed out in a walking trail, she offers to go find help. “I don’t care if I die...Just don’t leave me alone,” he replies. It is this sense of the urgent need for others, and the misery we will endure to connect to them, that is most resonating in “Olive Kitteridge.”
—Staff writer Kerry A. Goodenow can be reached at email@example.com.
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